|Mount Rainier and the Tahoma Glacier at sunset, July 1992. (Map, 400kb)|
Skiing for recreation in the Washington Cascades was born on the slopes of Mount Rainier. In 1909, Prof. Milnor Roberts of the University of Washington and friends spent a March holiday skiing out of the National Park Inn at Longmire. Roberts wrote about "A Wonderland of Glaciers and Snow" in a 1909 article about the trip in National Geographic Magazine. It is unlikely that this was the first time skis were used for enjoyment in the Cascades, but it was the first widely published story about it.
In 1917, around the time the Paradise Inn opened for business, a group of Seattle and Tacoma men, most of them Norwegian, organized the first ski jumping tournament on Mount Rainier. The tournament was held in July, since the road to Paradise was not passable earlier in the season. The contest was won by a young Norwegian woman, Miss Olga Bolstad. Described as "the most sensational lady ski-jumper in the Northwest," she surpassed all of the men in the event. One of the newspapers declared, "Her lightness and grace made her a favorite with all, and she seemed to skim through the air like a bird."
During the 1920s, a few hardy skiers visited Longmire and Paradise in winter, but the numbers remained small. The popularity of Paradise grew after winter road access was extended within a few miles of it in 1930. During the early 1930s, nearly 100 cabins were leased at Paradise during the winter. Reached by vertical shafts in the deep snow and connected by tunnels to each other and to the main lodge, they formed an "underground city" for skiing enthusiasts. In 1934, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer sponsored the first Silver Skis race, a wild four-mile dash from Camp Muir to Paradise.
As downhill skiing grew (without the aid of rope tows until 1937-38) ski mountaineering also came to Mount Rainier. Bill Maxwell of The Mountaineers was the first man to seriously pursue the dream of skiing to the summit of the great volcano. He made two attempts in 1927. The following year, he organized an ascent during which Walter Best, Hans-Otto Giese, and Otto Strizek reached the top. But due to icy conditions they abandoned their skis around 12,000 feet. It was not until 1939 that Sigurd Hall, an immigrant from Norway, made a complete ski ascent of the mountain. Hall was accompanied by Andy Hennig, who switched from skis to crampons below the summit due to binding trouble.
Sigurd Hall was not only an avid ski mountaineer, he was also a top ski racer. In 1940, he was the top ranked downhiller in the Northwest. That winter, Hall won the downhill event at the National Four-Way Championships at Mount Baker, which included downhill, slalom, cross-country and jumping. Overall, he finished third in the nation in this competition. In the backcountry, Hall was the first person to ascend or descend on skis all the Cascade volcanos from Mount Baker to Mount Hood, a feat capped by his 1939 ascent of Mount Rainier. He made a complete ski ascent of the mountain, but due to icy conditions, he descended the highest slopes on foot before skiing back to the base. In 1948, Charles Welsh, Cliff Schmidtke, Dave Roberts, and Kermit Bengtson accomplished the first complete ski descent of Rainier, following the Emmons Glacier. Tragically, less than a year after conquering Mount Rainier, Sigurd Hall died in the 1940 Silver Skis race, crashing into rocks next to the foggy course below Camp Muir.
Skiing from the true summit of Mount Rainier has always been difficult. At 14,410 feet above sea level, Rainier is so high and so blasted by storms that the upper slopes are usually too icy for good or safe skiing. The best chance of skiing from the summit is on a mid-summer day when the general freezing level is close to 14,000 feet. But on a hot day like this, climbing Rainier involves greater risks because of the weakening of crevasse bridges and the increased movement of icefalls on the slower slopes. The list of accidents on Rainier's glaciers that have occurred due to sagging snow bridges and shifting ice is long. For safety, most climbers try to descend from the summit of the mountain soon after sunrise, to return to high camp before the day warms too much. But for skiing, it is necessary to wait. The softening snow that climbers avoid is the same snow that skiers seek. Skiing high on Mount Rainier is a delicate balancing act.
For these reasons, many years passed before I skied from the summit of Rainier. Long after I had skied the other Cascade volcanos and climbed Rainier on foot, my skiing on the mountain was limited to the lower snowfields and glaciers. In 1996, with my brother Carl and Bruce Goodson, I decided to expand my knowledge of Rainier's lower slopes to its logical conclusion. In early July of that year, we skied around the mountain, traveling counter-clockwise, starting at the White River campground and ending at Fryingpan Creek. This "High-Level Orbit" was popularized by Dee Molenaar in his book, The Challenge of Rainier. Molenaar and several friends had done the same route in 1968, traveling on foot. A few ski parties had circled the mountain before our venture, the first in 1986. They started at Paradise and spent nearly a week trying to complete the route. Bad weather was a common problem and two parties cut their trips short for this reason. Crossing the Emmons Glacier proved difficult as well. Bruce, Carl and I decided to follow Dee Molenaar's route, which avoids crossing the Emmons Glacier, and we traveled quickly to avoid being caught by storm.
On July 5, 1996, we hiked from the White River campground to Glacier Basin, skied to St Elmo Pass, and circled to Ptarmigan Ridge. On the second day, we continued to Success Cleaver by crossing the Tahoma Glacier low (dropping below 7000 feet) to avoid crevasses. On the third day, we skied around the south side of the mountain, crossed the Muir Snowfield, and continued around Little Tahoma, finally hiking out Fryingpan Creek. I had cached a pair of in-line skates in a hollow stump near the Fryingpan Creek trailhead, and I used them to skate back to our car at White River campground.
It was a beautiful and challenging high route, requiring constant route finding decisions, both large and small. It was fascinating to compare the isolation we felt on the North Mowich Glacier on day two with the party atmosphere we encountered on the Muir Snowfield on day three. Most of all, the High-Level Orbit opened our eyes to sides of Mount Rainier that we had never seen before up close. We were soon talking about more trips to the west side of the mountain.
In June 1997, we attempted to climb and ski the Tahoma Glacier. We started on the Westside Road, which branches from the road to Paradise at an elevation of only 2100 feet. The road was gated at that point, and we used mountain bikes to peddle up the closed road to the Tahoma Creek trailhead. We camped the first night around 7000 feet on the Tahoma Glacier. Our plan was to locate a high camp at St. Andrews rocks, where we would enjoy the evening view of the Sunset Amphitheater and the upper Tahoma Glacier. But it was not to be. As we climbed up the Tahoma Glacier the next day, a cloud cap settled on the summit and we turned back due to frightening crevasse bridges below St. Andrews Rock. We learned later that a party climbing Liberty Ridge was pinned down by clouds and wind near Liberty Cap that afternoon and had to be airlifted off the mountain three days later.
A month later, Carl returned to the west side of Mount Rainier with three friends to make the first ski descent of the Edmunds Glacier headwall of the Mowich Face. This was a breakthrough descent that brought renewed attention by ski mountaineers to the potential for steep ski descents on the mountain.
Meanwhile, I heard about a ski descent of the Tahoma Glacier by Aaron Horwitz, Rob Gibson and Darrel Howe, just a month before our June 1997 attempt. The Horwitz party traversed over the top of the mountain from Camp Muir. This idea intrigued me for two reasons. First, it eliminated the west-side approach with its very low start. And second, it offered a grand tour of Rainier from one side to the other, going right over the summit.
Horwitz described their descent as "some good, some really good ... some bad, some really bad." They encountered ice while descending the crux portion of the upper Tahoma Glacier, a steep chute between 11,500 feet and 13,000 feet called The Sickle. This required them to descend on foot wearing crampons for several hundred feet. I later corresponded with Ned Randolph, who with Matt Farmer skied the entire Tahoma Glacier in 2001. They found good conditions on The Sickle, but very mushy snow on the lower glacier. Both parties had climbed the mountain from Camp Muir and descended the entire Tahoma Glacier in one day. I realized that it might be better to break up the descent into two segments, with a bivouac at St. Andrews Rock. This would require carrying heavier packs, including bivi gear, but it would allow us to wait for optimal afternoon conditions to ski The Sickle, then let the glacier refreeze during our bivouac for optimal morning conditions on the lower Tahoma Glacier.
During the first week of June, 2003, fair weather settled over the Northwest with freezing levels above 13,000 feet. Carl, Bruce and I decided to return to the Tahoma Glacier, this time traversing over the mountain (see map, 400kb). We parked a car on the Westside Road and drove to Paradise, climbing to Camp Muir in the afternoon. The next morning we left Camp Muir around 5 a.m. We started several hours later than climbing parties normally do, because we wanted to be on the summit at mid-day, rather than early in the morning. During our ascent of the Ingraham Direct route, I led the way wearing skis and harscheisen. Carl and Bruce decided to carry their skis and climb with crampons. Climbing on skis was delicate, but due to our late start the snow softened just enough as we ascended to enable me to continue. Thinking of Sigurd Hall skiing to the summit sixty-four years earlier, I was inspired to try and emulate him.
We reached the summit a little before noon and took a long lunch break. Around 1 p.m. we began our ski descent. We skied rough, wind scoured snow northeast from the summit to the saddle below Liberty Cap. Then we turned west and skied good corn snow toward The Sickle. As we neared the breach where the Tahoma Glacier pours down the west face of the mountain, our anticipation grew, since we could only guess at what lay below.
We began linking turns down The Sickle, finding good snow in the 35 to 40 degree gully. The setting was marvelous, with the seracs and cliffs of Tahoma Cleaver and Sunset Amphitheater looming on either side of us. Lower, we worked left to avoid some crevasses where The Sickle merges with the lower glacier. Then we traversed right below the crevasses and climbed slightly to the saddle next to St. Andrews Rock. Here we spent a lazy afternoon, glad to be off the glacier which was being baked in the hot sun. Our weatheradio reported 97 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland and 90 F in Seattle, both new records. Near sunset a huge avalanche fell from the ice cliff above the Sunset Amphitheater, just north of the upper Tahoma. The avalanche threw up an icy cloud that dusted the slope we had traversed earlier in the day.
The next morning we awoke to find frost on our bivi sacks and ice in our water bottles. We relaxed until the sun rose high enough to begin softening the frozen glacier. Around 10:30 a.m. we climbed a short distance up from the saddle, then traversed back to the center of the Tahoma Glacier. We descended the glacier along a corridor flanked by seracs as big as office buildings. Thanks to the firm snow, the skiing was excellent. Lower, we descended the Glacier Island Gully and passed below the snout of the Tahoma Glacier to the Tahoma Creek trail. We descended the trail to the Westside Road and walked about a mile to our car parked near Mount Wow.
Ever since I began ski mountaineering in 1979, I have been captivated by the fact that skis can do more than just slide down hills. They can unlock new worlds. On Mount Rainier's Tahoma Traverse and High-Level Orbit, we skied up and down Mount Rainier, as many others have done, but we also skied over and around it. We saw all sides of the mountain, but we never once retraced our tracks. More than simple playthings, skis are tools that can take you places. I hope to continue to enjoy our wonderful Cascade Mountains on skis as long as I can slide one foot in front of another.
For some retrospective thoughts on skiing the Cascade Crest, click here.
Previous | Next | Overview - Skiing the Cascade Crest | The Alpenglow Gallery